M. Night Shymalan's new cinematic freakout, inauspiciously yet evocatively titled Old, could easily be mistaken for a masterpiece if you don't understand a word of English.
There are shots in this beachfront-horror parable as wrenching and glorious as any the writer/director has yet delivered, and Shymalan is rare among his peers in possessing a gift for making mundane images – swaying palm trees, a Barbie doll half-buried in the sand – absolutely terrifying. (When our leads here are first greeted with a tray of fruity cocktails, you not quite sure what's wrong with the drinks, but something about the fruit looks decidedly off.) The actors, too, seem pitched at appropriate levels of confusion and panic, and they're able to sell the peril of Old's impossible situation without saying a word. Unfortunately, though, there are words – at least four times as many as needed. And it's only through the strengths of Shymalan's visual panache and sensationally grabby plot that you're able to (partly) ignore the dialogue and let the movie work on its own messy, undeniably effective terms.
Adapted from a Swiss graphic novel that, as I understand it, is a lot more graphic than Shymalan's PG-13 offering, Old opens with our introduction to the Cappas, a troubled family of four: Guy (Gael García Bernal), an actuary; Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a museum curator; and their kids – 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River). Hoping for one last weekend of togetherness before telling the children that they're separating – and maybe telling them that Mom has an apparently benign stomach tumor – Guy and Prisca spring for a luxury vacation at a remote island resort, a gorgeous getaway site that instantly raises red flags with Prisca's declaration of wonder: “Can you believe I found this place online?!”
From the excessive, smarmy cheer with which the clan is greeted to the watchful gaze of a lonely little boy to those aforementioned creepy-ass cocktails, nothing about this touristy paradise seems entirely kosher. The Cappas, however, don't seem to notice, and are also deaf to the warning sirens that blare when the resort's oily manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) talks them into a private trek to an isolated coast, a day trip he only sets up for “very special guests.” They should've known what they were getting into when another family of four – one led by the eternally unpleasant Rufus Sewell – joins the Cappas in their “private” van to the beach. They should've really known what they were getting into when the van's driver turns out to be M. Night Shymalan himself.
After the eight travelers, among them another six-year-old (Kyle Bailey), are dropped off, they wander through some unusual rock formations and finally land on the beach, eventually encountering additional resort guests that include an epileptic psychologist (Nikki Amurka-Bird), her nurse husband (Ken Leung), and a rap star unaccountably named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre). Yet before the ludicrousness of Shymalan's specifics – Mid-Sized Sedan?!? – becomes too overpowering, a dead body floats by, the group's children begin to notice their bathing suits getting tighter, an elderly woman (stage legend Kathleen Chalfont) dies suddenly and mysteriously, and the reason we've all gathered for this particular Shymalan becomes clear: The beach is aging everyone with astonishing speed – roughly a year for every passing half-hour – and, with a nod to Jean-Paul Sartre, there's no exit in sight.
This is what, in Shymalan-ese, is known as The Hook. (Fear not, fans: We'll also be getting The Twist … or rather, The Explanation.) And a positively superb Hook it is, too, one that touches on so many deeply held universal fears – about getting older, about your kids getting older, about your memory and body falling apart, about being trapped in circumstances you can't escape – that it's nearly dizzying. Also dizzying, though not in any nausea-inducing way, is Shymalan's restless camera. If cinematographer Mike Gioulakis provides a visual motif, it lies in the steady, pendulum-like motions that scoot the action, uninterrupted, from left to right and back again, causing us to dread the images we're about to land on and marvel at the ones we're returning to. This technique is well-employed for myriad clues and attacks and deaths, but also for astounding leaps in time as Shymalan shifts not merely perspectives but also entire performers, with (for starters) Swinton eventually replaced by Thomasin McKenzie, Bailey by Eliza Scanlen, and River by Alex Wolff. (I was both delighted and anguished to see Wolff show up; delighted because I adore the actor, and anguished because, as 2018's Hereditary demonstrated, you don't cast that guy in a horror movie unless you want him to undergo some serious emotional trauma.)
With composer Trevor Gureckis' sinister score constantly goosing the threat, Old's director keeps the tension active and the pacing taut for most of the film's length, and as the names of all those many cast members hopefully suggest, Shymalan is blessed with a stellar crew of largely under-the-radar talents supporting his vision. Would it have been too much for him to have hired another screenwriter – or at least a reasonable script doctor – for a little extra assistance?
I know, I know. Bitching about M. Night Shymalan dialogue is like … . Well, like bitching about James Cameron dialogue. It's the price we pay for the visuals, I guess. But, sheesh, what a price! Shymalan builds contraptions, and those contraptions run on exposition, and so it's kind of understandable that Old features so much telling in tandem with the showing, especially with the narrative so dependent on what characters do for a living. That being said, maybe another author might've convinced the man that there were more elegant ways to reveal names and professions without the contrivance of six-year-old Trent continually wandering up to strangers and asking, “What is your name and occupation?” (Prototypical answer: “I'm Patricia, and I'm a psychologist.” Noted.)
And perhaps someone else – anyone else! – could have found ways to amend Shymalan's flabbergasting word choices and syntax. When you hear lines such as “This is no one's dilemma but me!”, and no one registers that the comment makes no earthly sense, you can start to feel like you're losing your mind. (I also began wondering whether Shymalan cast Bernal, a native of Mexico, and Krieps, a native of Luxembourg, precisely because English wasn't their native language.) The only times in which it sounds like characters here talk the way humans actually do are when McKenzie, Scanlen, and Wolff speak, and that's only because, respectively, those adult actors are playing 11- and six-year-olds.
Happily, though, Shymalan's latest boasts enough visual magic to largely make up for the verbal atrocities, and I won't soon forget the images of the emergency surgery (with the open wound instantly closing), and the horrifically accelerated pregnancy, and the out-of-the-blue knife assaults, and the Midsommar-terrifying fall from a cliff, and one character's recognition of going blind, and another's recognition of going deaf … . And, perverse bastard that he is, of M. Night Shymalan behind a camera lens, gauging the goings-on with an expression that may have been captured, the filmmaker unawares, during the Old filming itself.
We can argue about the dialogue, and a few of the more overripe portrayals, and the protracted finale that either provides ultimate clarity or muddies everything beyond recognition. (I'm still on the fence regarding how well it works given what preceded it, but am grateful to say the ending wasn't a deal-breaker for me.) What's almost inarguable, though, is that the movie remains gripping despite its numerous flaws, and considering how collectively unsurprising our summer blockbusters have been of late, I'm pleased to report that this was the first non-documentary of the season that didn't cause me to yawn even once. Minor praise, perhaps, but there's a sunny beach and gently crashing waves and contended reading in a deck chair and food and liquor … . I'm frankly amazed I didn't nap.
If earnestness was all it took for a movie to succeed, we'd likely find our 2022 Best Picture winner in director Reinaldo Marcus Green's Joe Bell. A based-on-true-events tale of how its titular Oregon family man (Mark Wahlberg), in 2013, embarked on a months-long, cross-country walk to New York as a way to raise awareness of homophobia and bullying (injustices suffered by Bell's 15-year-old son Jadin) and mend his broken heart, Green's drama is bathed in good intentions. It even has a few good scenes: Joe coming to terms with his grief in front of a drag club's Dolly Parton impersonator; Joe's wife Lola (a wonderfully low-key Connie Britton) dispensing some much-needed tough love; the Bells' younger son Joseph (the excellent Maxwell Jenkins) bravely taking away his father's handgun. And just about every moment featuring Jadin is marvelous, as Reid Miller fills his abused yet frequently high-spirited gay teen with such rich interior life and tragically unfulfilled promise that you wish like hell he'd been the movie's center of attention. He's not, however, and even though the title immediately gives away the film's primary leanings, Joe Bell's insistence on making it all about Joe feels misguided, and more than a little unfortunate. (In flashback scenes of Jadin enjoying brief moments of intimacy with Igby Rigney's closeted football player, we're given hints of the thoughtful, moving heartbreaker this might have been.)
Wahlberg is in admirable form, expressing Joe's fundamental decency but not shying away from his short temper, his rigid conservatism, or his own barely veiled homophobia. (There's a particularly affecting sequence, one that's ugly for being so banal, in which Joe demands that Jadin practice his cheerleading in the backyard instead of the front; the reason, Joe lies, is because he can't hear the TV.) Yet for all of the solid acting and individually touching scenes, Joe's cross-country trek slowly but irrevocably becomes indistinguishable from an exercise in self-pity, and Jadin, like Lola and young Joseph, becomes something of an afterthought. We're meant to weep for what Joe endured, but Jadin's far more significant trials get forgotten amidst a slew of self-therapy bromides and sadly feeble “life goes on” moralizing from peripheral figures such as Gary Sinise's kindly sheriff. This will inevitably sound crude, but the film's slow descent into its one-sided focus almost makes it seem as though Jadin suffered so his dad could become a better person. (Screenwriters Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry also collaborated on, and won Oscars for, Brokeback Mountain, and Joe Bell winds up feeling like that film as told from the perspective of … maybe not Randy Quaid's character, but perhaps Anne Hathaway's.) Joe Bell undeniably means well. I wish it meant equally well for the people who aren't Joe Bell.
SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS
Because a summer weekend wouldn't be complete without at least one sequel or prequel or reboot of previously existing material – unless, of course, it's a summer weekend in 2020 – this past Friday also brought us Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. So before discussing the movie, I suppose I should admit a few things right off the bat. No, I never played with G.I. Joe action figures as a kid, nor did I watch any of the Hasbro product's TV series; I was more into superheroes and dinosaurs and as many Star Wars figurines as could fit in my Darth Vader carrying case. No, I had no idea who Snake Eyes was, and only recently learned that he apparently (a) never took off his mask, and (b) never spoke. Yes, I did see 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation, but have zero memories of either, except for vague recollections that Channing Tatum starred in one and was killed off really early in the other. And no, taken overall, I didn't care for director Robert Schwentke's over-edited, under-imagined, unspeakably tedious Snake Eyes, although I did kind of admire the audacity in its most clichéd lines – “You should have killed me when you had the chance!”, “You killed my father!” – being delivered with relatively straight faces. (Snake Eyes actually says “dad” instead of “father,” a break from the norm that might mark the film's grandest moment of unpredictability.)
But in honor of Schwentke's franchise-extender opening on the very same day that kicked off the new season of Ted Lasso, let's focus on the positive! In the title role, Henry Golding, as usual, is incredibly easy on the eyes, if never half as interesting as you want him to be … also as usual. Snake Eyes' (initial) brother-in-arms Tommy is played by Andrew Koji, who's almost criminally charismatic in the role. Even though nearly all the choreography is cut to ribbons in the standard action-nonsense manner, there's an enjoyable scene in which our in-training hero has to secure a bowl of water from an adversary without a drop hitting the floor. A few of the nighttime shots are legitimately gorgeous, especially the one that finds a Tokyo compound burning in the faraway distance. And there are not one but two sequences involving irrationally huge CGI anacondas that hit me in my monster-flick sweet spot. True, this unfailingly unexciting movie is boring as sin, and the meager attempts at comic relief are insulting, and the incessant, metal-on-metal clang of the sword fights routinely hurt my fillings. (If you also hoped this Origins flick would give you an origin story concerning how Snake Eyes became a supreme ass-kicker, you won't find one; when we first meet the character, he's a feisty pubescent, and the very next time we see him, he's a fighting champ.) But still, maybe the next Snake Eyes – or whichever Hasbro action figure gets big-screen treatment before then – will be better than this one. The G.I. Joe series can't be lousy forever, right? Believe!